The Psychology of Food… The Development of Habits.

Unusually, I am going to write this article with a big chunk of self-reflection thrown in for good measure… ‘The judge lest we be judged’ ethos is something that, in this context, I think we should all keep in mind and so as far as my articles go, this is about as personal as I will get.


For people like myself who’s entire life now revolves around health, fitness and nutrition, who have dedicated years in education and as a hobby (huge understatement!) have aimed to understand the benefits of certain foods in terms of their macronutrient and micronutrient composition, the importance of calorie intake and how we can eat to reach physique, health or performance goals, it now seems second nature to view certain foods in their ‘proper’ context.


My diet growing up was not great. It wasn’t bad, but it definitely wasn’t great. I ate chips and sausage rolls with gravy every day at school (yes I’m northern) and tons of chocolate and sweets, but I was always active so I ‘got away with it’ and was never ‘the fat kid’ at school, far from it; and this active lifestyle continued into my twenties. I always trained hard and competed in various sports, but my diet was still far from what I would consider great for what my goals were. I’m not sure what changed my eating patterns into my late twenties; maybe it was the nutritional part of my education, but I think, fundamentally, it stems from my own insecurity and wanting to develop the best possible physique I could, as injury put paid to playing the sports I loved, and bodybuilding seemed a ‘fun’ (little did I know) option.  


If I’m being honest, this has now become, at times, an often unhealthy obsession with my physique, pushing my body to its limits of fatigue, injury and poor health in my quest for a little plastic trophy, going to my physical and mental limit and developing my knowledge to try and make up for my sub-par genetics and late start in the sport! To the outside world, I’m sure I mostly appear to have a healthy diet and lifestyle, but emotionally, my health when dieting becomes far from stable. This is the nature of the sport, the hidden peril, so to my friends and family I apologise for those few months a year where I am (to put it mildly) ‘not myself’. Anyone who has ever competed in a physique show or dieted hard, if they’re being honest, probably has some ‘odd’ relationship with food… And I know I’m still fairly balanced in this regard compared to some of the other competitors I know.


It is easy for people in shape to judge the overweight, and to me this often comes with an element of hypocrisy. After all, being in shape can come from a very unhealthy place. Both over and under eating are damaging to health and getting the balance right, from a psychological perspective, can be difficult. So, if you are the kind of person that won’t eat carbs because you have some notion that they will make you fat, maybe think twice about someone who has an equally irrational need to overeat on those very same foods.


It’s just that being overweight or obese comes with more obvious physical consequences, both visually and internally, than those who maintain a leaner physique, even though their relationships with food might be as equally as irrational. So, what factors do influence our food choices and habits into later life and why are they so difficult for some people to shake?


Our intrinsic motivation to eat or avoid certain foods is influenced by a number of factors, including sensory appeal and impact on mood, health benefits/costs, familiarity of the food, ethical and environmental concerns, and the content of the food and where it comes from. How we internally ‘weigh up’ the importance of each of these factors will directly influence the types and amount of each food we eat. For example, if we place importance on the sensory aspect of food over health, then we might be predisposed to consistently eating delicious high calorie foods and not be concerned as much about the health impacts this might have. But where do we get these ‘weightings’ from and can they be changed?


In early life, it seems many food habits are developed due to our innate preference for sweet and fatty foods, which are energy dense. This, from an evolutionary perspective, makes sense, as we need to identify and consume foods that provide us with energy; and this would have been important when food became scarce during the different seasons, helping restore energy balance and fuelling us through the harsher times. However, in the modern world, food is available all the time, so overriding these natural compulsions to these foods can be challenging, even if we ‘know’ the food is available. That being said, this innate food preference is still only one of several interweaving factors that cause long-term eating habits.


Social learning from our family, cultural influences and peer groups also has a massive impact. The foods we are most often exposed are likely to be the ones adopt in the diet. Exposure to foods seems to be a key determinant of habit; if children are presented with new foods, they will often resist eating them initially, but the greater the number of exposures to the food, the higher chance that they will accept it as long as it is not ‘forced’ upon them… This can cause other issues, including food phobias. This shows that if parents give in early and stick to foods that a child is familiar with or want, then they are likely to be setting the child up with a mind-set to avoid new foods without even trying them, and this might persist into adulthood.


It also seems that the more often new foods are included in the diet, the quicker they will be accepted. So, if you want a child to have a balanced, varied diet that promotes health, starting to expose them to new and novel foods from an early age is a good idea, even if the first few times they refuse to try it. It also appears that children place more of an incentive on taste than health, so marketing new foods as ‘tasting good’, not that they are ‘good for them’ may have a more positive impact on food choice. For a toddler, foods that are ‘good for you’ is no incentive to them, as I’m sure the parents amongst you are aware!


Another profound influence on eating habits is what our parents eat, and this is not just related to the food that is placed on the table. It has been suggested that even if a parent provides a delicious, nutritious meal, a child is more likely to still eat what the parents consume. If the parent has made different food choices, then the child will still use that as a basis for a majority of the foods they eat.  This is very important as children enter their teenage years when body issues can come to the fore, as they are likely to take on their parent eating habits and patterns. So, if a parent yo-yo diets, it is likely the child will develop the same patterns. If they overeat, it is likely that the child will too; under-eat, then the outcome will also likely be the same. ‘The best predictor of the daughter’s eating patterns was her mother’s eating behaviour’... Certainly food for thought.


The media also has an impact on food choice, through both government guidelines and advertising of certain foods. However, there seems to be a trade-off between several factors including education, age, socio-economic status, family dynamics and even gender that determine how susceptible a person is to buy a product or follow nutritional advice. It is common that food manufacturers/advertisers get the blame for poor eating habits and encouraging over-consumption of ‘junk’ foods. However, the impact of advertising is hard to discern; even those who are aware of the negative impacts of over-consumption of junk foods will still do so, and there are other factors such as socio-economic status, emotional relationships with food, the importance we place on ‘health versus want’ and patterns that are developed during childhood that are likely to have a more profound effect, even if advertising can potentially trigger poorer eating behaviours.


There are also often conflicting health messages put through our mainstream media and government channels, especially to do with healthy eating and exercise. Despite these influences, the dynamic that exists between the media/advertising and eating choices is not as cut and dried as many might think, and that ‘people actively negotiate their understanding of food within both the micro-context, such as their immediate social networks, and the macro-social contexts, such as the food production and information production systems’.


In summary, although food choice inherently comes down to the individual, a lifetime of influences that may lead to poor eating habits that cannot simply be undone with a few quick words about ‘health’. As shocking as it may seem, and as difficult as I find it to grasp, being healthy is not enough of an incentive for some people to change their ways… That said, who am I to judge? Let’s face it, bodybuilding is hardly a sport associated with health and we all have our vices. It’s just for some, it’s more noticeable and the consequences (arguably) more severe than for others. The truth is that what causes our eating habits is hugely complex, and this means that isolating exact causes that trigger an eating behaviour in one person may have no impact on another. It is likely that a combination of family, social and cultural factors influence our food choices, and the media can, to a certain extent, exploit these learned preferences in some people.


Thanks for reading,
Dr. P